The Heart is a Pump

THE HEART IS A PUMP WAS PUBLISHED IN LULLWATER REVIEW


           There’s a man who’s been calling me every night for the past five nights. He calls at all hours, usually once a night. He calls from bars. I can tell from the background noise. I answer the phone, and he says, “Hey, fuck you, man,” listens for a moment and then hangs up. If I put my phone machine on, he waits for the beep after my message and then says the same thing. He says it angrily. His voice sounds like it’s coming from high inside his nose, maybe at the bridge where his eyebrows connect.

            I picture this guy with coarse, shaggy, blonde hair. It falls in his eyes. He’s always snapping his head back to whip the hair away. Then he sort of rolls his jaw to the right or left and squares his shoulders. He has a muscle that tics on the side of his face where his teeth clench. The muscle tics a lot before he slides off his stool and calls me.

            He has the kind of pale-blue eyes that you can see through. Windows on the soul. I peer into them and see a steaming landscape with great, water-filled sinkholes and battling Tyrannosaurus Rex. Physically, his eyes bug out from his skull. They are so moist and large and exposed that I imagine they are a hazard to small flying insects. He has a flat nose (no bone, all cartilage), swollen lips, and a very thick, very wide tongue. He has a habit of wiping his tongue across his small, white teeth.

            He’s not as stupid as he sounds either. Somewhere in there is a spark of intelligence. It makes him more dangerous. It’s like a dead brother that he carries around inside himself, and he’s mad as hell about it. I would be mad too. It’s not like I can’t identify with the best parts of yourself being denied.

            My father used to say to me, “You are nothing more than a gene repository, a temporary cellular home. You exist because cells need to replicate themselves. The universe is indifferent to the plight of your being. You are important only to yourself. See my arm?” He would flex his muscle at me. “You’re my arm. You are an extension of me.”

            Ever since my father died a year ago, I’ve been at his mercy. Before, if I didn’t want to listen to his comments on my life, I could hang up or move away. Now I hear him at the most unexpected moments, repeating phrases, forming judgments, giving pieces of advice. My father didn’t die. He moved in.

            A crazy thought comes into my head. It is about my phone caller. He has me at knife point in an alley, and he is screaming, “I’ll cut you. I’ll cut your arm off.” Is that what it’s about? The insistence that one is not an arm? The need to cut off arms to be free of their embrace? Whose arms does my phone caller want to escape?

            I see him as drunk now. It’s 11 a.m. He’s deciding whether or not to go to another bar or start heading to my place. He takes out his worn, leather wallet from his back pocket. It remains slightly curved, holding the shape of his cheek. He flips it open and removes a slip of paper with my phone number on it. He caresses the paper flat and stares at it. He knows the number by heart, but he still likes to see it written. He picks the paper up and tastes it with his tongue and smells it. The only scents are his, but he pretends it smells faintly of my perfume. He must choose a perfume for me. “Obsession.” He likes those ads with all the women and one man: soft breasts, hair, arms, backs, making a picture puzzle. He plays with the picture, trying to figure out which breast belongs to which body, where are the hands that can’t be seen? How many women are there? Then he thinks about me and stiffens. He thinks about me in pieces: hair, breasts, arms, legs, ass.

            My father would say, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What does that mean? Was he telling me that I can rise above failure? Was he telling me to suspend judgment and to see him as greater than the sum of his parts?

            Through my father’s eyes I always saw myself in pieces: hair, smile, face. He was like a portrait gallery of mirrors in which I would catch my own refection when I tried to get a look at him. And what about my gentleman caller? Will he dismember me because he is so split apart that he has no memory of being whole?

            I am in fact terrified and scaring myself silly by indulging in these fantasies. I look at my clock. It’s 11:15 p.m., and he still hasn’t called. It’s impossible to find an unused part of the bed. I’ve been lying here for hours. I bought this bed when I moved in with Joel. It’s Victorian pine. Inset in the headboard is a primitive painting of a cabin on a lake, with two figures on a boat, surrounded by mountains. I said to Joel, “How can anyone have nightmares in a bed like this?” I fancied the paintings would guarantee our sweet dreams.

            I remember when I told my father I was moving in with Joel, he paced back and forth like a trapped animal. I’d never seen him like that before. The only thing he said to me was, “Two halves don’t make a whole,” which made me very angry. As a joke I bought one of those gold charm hearts that are broken down the middle. I wear half the heart around my neck, and Joel wears the other half around his.

            Joel is out of town on business. He may be back tonight, maybe tomorrow night. I suddenly have a very paranoid thought. Before Joel left on business, I asked him, “Are you angry with me, Joel?”

            “No.”

            “Are you in a bad mood?”

            “No.”

            “Is there anything you want to tell me?”

            “No.”

            Once I asked my father about his childhood. I asked him what it was like. He said he couldn’t remember.

            “Were you happy? Unhappy?”

            “I really don’t remember. The only thing I remember is what my mother cooked. On Monday was pot roast. On Tuesday was chicken, Wednesday was steak, Thursday fish, Friday meatloaf, Saturday lamb chops, and Sunday roast beef.” He smiled and unconsciously licked his lips.

            My mother always used to say, “Men are such babies. You have to forgive them.”

            “Do I?”

            “Do you, Joel Monk, take Julie Lessing to be your lawful wedded wife?”

            There is a long pause. I turn and face Joel, not really surprised. My bridal veil is drawn over my face and is the only thing that stirs when I breathe. I see him looking sadly, uncomfortably down at his hands.

            “No,” he says. “I can’t.”

            From inside my bridal bouquet of white magnolias, I squeeze the trigger of my .45 and shoot Joel in the heart.

***

            The phone rings, making me jump, upsetting my box of bonbons lying on the covers near me. Joel believes that once you live with a woman, she immediately begins lying around eating bonbons. I want Joel to come home and find me in bed with them.

            The phone rings for a third time. Heart pumping, I pick it up.

            “Hello?”

            I hear a rather slurred, “Hey, fuck you, man.”

            “Why are you so angry?” I say.

            “Fuck you!” He hangs up.

            Trembling, I put the receiver back. I wish Joel were here. I wish he’d call. Joel is six feet three inches tall with a bristling moustache and thinning hair. He’s very upset about losing his hair. Once a day he makes me stand on a chair and look at the top of his head.

            “Is the bald spot bigger?” he asks.

            “No, Joel. It’s the same size as yesterday.”

            “You’re lying to me, I can feel it.” He gingerly pats the tender bald spot. I lean forward and kiss his naked scalp.

            “Don’t do that,” he shouts, pushing me back, almost knocking me off the chair.

            “Why not? What’s the matter?”

            “It’s not funny.”

            “I’m not making fun of you.”

            “Yes, you are. You don’t take this seriously.”

            “That’s because I’m not going to stop loving you if you lose your hair. I may not have sex with you or want to be seen in public with you, but I won’t stop loving you.”

            “Very funny.”

            I try to hug him, but he’s having none of it.

            “I don’t care how much it costs,” he threatens, “even if we have to work three jobs and never see each other, I’m going to get a hair transplant.”

            “What’s this we?”

            “You really don’t care,” he glowers at me, “do you?”

            What Joel lacks on his head, he more than makes up for on his body. He has a thick carpet of belly hair that grows wildly up to his chest, over his shoulders, and down his back. Only his ass bursts smooth and pink from the body fur that continues down his thighs, over his calves, stopping at his feet.

            I call him the missing link. He grins sheepishly when I cover him in kisses, nuzzling into his silky animal pelt.

            My father was also very hairy. Not as hairy as Joel, of course, but hairy nonetheless. He had a similar balding pattern, spiraling out from the top of his head. The irony is that I really am quite fond of head hair on men, in fact am somewhat obsessed by it. I actually prefer no body hair at all except at the armpit and crotch. If men didn’t have to shave, I’d be happy. But I can get used to anything. In the final analysis, despite what my father used to say, the heart is not just a pump.

            When I was a little girl, he would take me on his lap and open Gray’s Anatomy. He would point out the red arteries and blue veins carrying the blood to and from the heart. The heart is a pump, he explained. And when I woke from bad dreams at night with my heart racing in my chest, he would tell me that it was normal, my heart was pumping faster to chase the bad dreams from my head. But when I shrieked awake night after night and cried that my heart hurt, he took me to a specialist, who hooked me up to machines with black, rubber suction cups that bruised my small, bare chest.

            “Nothing wrong with her heart,” the doctor said.

            “Nothing wrong with your heart,” my father told me.

            Now when I woke up at night, I didn’t cry that my heart hurt, and after awhile it didn’t.

            I’m aware this minute of my heart pumping in my chest. I put my palm on my breast to feel the pump, pump. I do this often when I’m alone. It makes me anxious to feel the beating, but it makes me more anxious not to.

            It’s midnight and my phone caller is still out on the street, cruising for another phone booth. Tonight he decides he’ll call again. A breeze lifts the blonde bangs from his forehead. I see him appear and disappear in the pools of light from street lamps. Finally, a few blocks away from my apartment, he stops at a phone booth. Closing the glass door, he cups the receiver to his lips and dials my number. He needs to talk to me. The pressure is a gas in his head, his brain a balloon that is about to pop.

            I leave him alone in the booth, listening to my phone ring. But then I reconsider. Maybe I should meet him in a bar somewhere. I’d like to talk to this guy.

            What should I wear? I don’t want to be provocative. At least I don’t consciously want to be provocative, but when I start to dress, I am putting on an outfit that is nothing like anything I would ever own. I put on a slick, black, vinyl dress that looks wet and is so tight that my knees squeeze together, making my ass sway very slowly. My legs are bare. No underwear. I put on a wig, a red one, with a deep, scarlet wave over one eye.

            I take a cab over to the bar. I mince inside, trying to keep from falling. I sit down on a stool beside him and, with difficulty, try to get a cigarette from my pack, using my dragon-lady fingernails.

            “Douglas?” I say, blowing smoke in his direction.

            “How do you know my name?” I see the tic begin in his jaw.

            “Oh, I know a lot about you, Douglas. I want to talk to you. Just talk.”

            “I don’t talk to women,” Douglas says, giving me an appraising look. “I hurt them.”

            I hear my father’s calm, disembodied voice say, “Get out of there.”

            “I want to tell you that I understand. I know you’re angry. You have every right to be angry. Your mother shouldn’t have beaten you, and you deserved better than foster parents after she died. They should have adopted you. They should have seen past the hanged cats and dismembered dolls. Nobody listened. The heart is more than a pump.”

            Douglas touches my face with one finger. “Pretty.”

            I feel the seam going down the back of my dress begin to split. My slightest movement splits it wider, until anyone from behind can begin to see my naked flesh.

            I see that Douglas sees. He says, “I’ll get behind you and when I say move, move.”

            I suddenly think, That’s touching. I’ve reached him. He’s being gallant. I feel his stomach against my back, then I feel his hands on either side of my hips, lifting me up.

            “Okay, now move,” he laughs, penetrating me from behind.

            The phone rings. It rings again. Again. I grab the phone and scream, “Hey, fuck you, man!” into it.

            “Julie?”

            “Joel?”

            “What the hell’s going on, Julie?”

            “Nothing. Do you hear that clicking on the line, Joel?”

            “No.”

            “You really don’t hear that?”

            “Julie, you’re avoiding the subject.”

            “What subject? We haven’t even had a conversation yet.”

            “One doesn’t say, ‘Hey, fuck you, man’ as a phone greeting in this country.”

            “I don’t want you to get upset.”

            “I’m already upset. Are you having an affair?”

            “Am I having an affair? You’re the one calling at one o’clock in the morning from some hotel room.”

            “What are you so upset about?”

            “I’m upset because you’re not home. I’m pissed because you’re calling so late.”

            “Listen, if anybody has a right to be pissed, it’s me. I’m the one who’s been out all night with an asshole client who suffers from separation anxiety. I’m so tense that over dinner, my hair started falling out.”

            “Joel.”

            “No, I mean it. I found a hair in my soup. I fished it out, and, while I was smiling and nodding at the asshole, I was checking out its color and texture. It was fine and dark.”

            “Sounds Latin to me.”

            “It was mine! How is this possible? Both my father and mother have full heads of hair.”

            “Your mother, Joel.”

            “What?”

            “Your mother’s side of the family. You inherit baldness through the mother.”

            “I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m no good at this, Julie. This guy is taller than me. He’s one of those big-bellied glad-handers. He calls me Joelly. ‘Nice to see ya, Joelly.’ It’s humiliating. He thought he was entertaining me by telling me stories about his experience in a whore house in Tijuana. Why are men such slime holes?”

            “Not all men. You’re a man, Joel.”

            “Am I? I feel like a worm. I feel like I spent the night ingratiating myself with this jerk because I want his money. And all I could think about was, ‘How’m I doing?’ and my hair falling out. I’m too old for this.”

            “Joel, you’re only twenty-eight.”

            “Bald men are old men.”

            “Joel, I’m not going to talk about this anymore.”

            “Okay, let’s talk about your affair.”

            “I’m not having an affair.”

            “Okay, then who are you screaming ‘fuck you’ to at one o’clock in the morning?”

            “Maybe it was you.”

            “Maybe you’re lying.”

            “Maybe I don’t want to talk about it.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because you’ll get upset.”

            “So? Why are you protecting me?”

            “Okay. Someone has been calling me here every night since you’ve been gone. All he says is, ‘Hey, fuck you, man,’ and hangs up.”

            “Yeah?”

            “That’s all.”

            “That’s it?”

            “Yeah.”

            “So there’s nothing to be upset about.”

            “What?”

            “I mean, aside from it being annoying, it’s probably a harmless situation. One in a million probably act on their fantasies. He’s a total stranger who’s never seen you and doesn’t know where you live. The thrill is calling to terrify you. Now that you know, you don’t have to be scared.”

            “I don’t?”

            “No. Feel better?”

            “Oh, sure. I just wanted to tell you in case I was dead when you came home.”

            “You don’t feel better.”

            “No. No. I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. Don’t lose any hair over it.”

            “You’re angry.”

            “Why should I be angry?”

            “Would you feel any better if I got into a rage and said I’m coming right home and I’m going to kill the cocksucker?”

            “No.”

            “So?”

            “I’m getting off the phone now, Joel. I’m tired and I want to go to sleep.”

            “Julie?”

            “What, Joel?”

            “I’m sorry.”

            “What are you apologizing for?”

            “I don’t know. I just feel sorry. I think I’ve hurt you.”

            “Joel, let’s talk about it when you get home.”

            “Do you forgive me, Julie?”

            “Joel.”

            “Do you?”

            “Okay. I forgive you.”

            “You don’t forgive me.”

            “Good night, Joel.”

            “No. Wait.”

            “What?”

            “I love you, Julie.”

            “Joel, do you hear those clicks?”

            I hear a last click and the hum of the dial tone. I put the phone down gently in its cradle. Then I pick it up again. I slam the phone down three times. I stuff a pillow in my mouth and bite it hard. In my head I hear a little girl’s voice, my voice. “Daddy?” My throat constricts and then what happens, always happens, I cough, choking. “Fuck you, Daddy. Where the fuck are you?”

            “What was the dream about?” I hear my father say.

            I can’t stop crying. I stuff the covers up around my mouth and stare, horrified, at my father. I am 15. I have had another nightmare.

            “What was the dream about?” he asks again calmly, not touching me, sitting beside me on the bed.

            “I don’t remember,” I say.

            I am standing in a hallway looking at where it dead-ends and turns left. I see my father in the dream lurch drunkenly into view. He is 20 feet tall, bloated and hairy. His thick muscles and fat are covered with coarse, black hair that sprouts wildly from his neck and shoulders. He is smirking, eyes rolled back in his head. He reels out of sight around the corner.

            I see my best friend, Tina, weave into view. I see only her naked shoulders and her long throat arched back, her mouth open, silently screaming.

            “Can’t you remember what frightened you?” my father asks.

            “I don’t remember.”

            “Okay. You’re awake now. It was only a dream. It doesn’t mean anything.”

            I don’t believe him. I don’t stop crying.

            He still doesn’t touch me. He talks. His voice sounds distant, like he’s speaking from the dark side of the moon. I don’t listen to what he says. I only listen to the sound. After a long time I am quiet.

            “Feeling better?” he asks.

            Yes, I nod.

            His eyes crinkle in a slight smile. I look into my father’s sad eyes, and I feel my stomach lurch, not understanding that it is the tug of the primal tide. We swim, my father and I, in a common gene pool, at the beginning of time. This fluid that is our natural element is as thick as blood, as blue as pain. We are so primitive that we have no legs, we have not gained land.

            The phone is ringing. Although it’s irrational, I suddenly think it’s my father calling. I’m afraid I’ll pick up the phone and hear his voice.

            “But you’re dead,” I say in a whisper of fear.

            “No, I’m not,” he insists cheerfully.

            How many rings was that? I’ve lost track. I look at the clock. It’s 2 a.m. I don’t have to answer. People don’t have to answer phones at two o’clock in the morning. I pick up the phone. “Hello?” Click. Buzz.

            My phone caller is lurking outside my building. He is wearing a fluorescent white shirt opened at the throat and bright, tight, white pants. He glows in the dark. I see him looking up at the fire escape, then at my bedroom window. He is deciding if he can make the jump. He is like a cat, measuring the distance. His thighs and calf muscles are tensing in anticipation. He is leaping in his mind’s eye, seeing himself hang by his strong hands, pulling himself up by his powerful arms.

            I get out of bed and steal over to the window to test the lock, turning out the bedroom lights as I go. Standing in the dark I part the blind and peer into the street. There is no one there. I feel my heart kick. Stop it. Stop scaring yourself. I can’t breathe. My chest is tight. Oh my God. I’m having a heart attack.

            “Get a paper bag,” my father says. I gasp my way to the utility closet. I open the door and paper bags come spilling out. I grab the smallest one and hold it over my nose and mouth. My breathing slows. I feel calmer. “The heart is a pump,” I say superstitiously, like “knock on wood.”

            I get back into bed, grinning foolishly. The bonbons are scattered everywhere. I am pleased. I turn the nightlight on. Its nostalgic glow, an old guardian from childhood, comforts me.

            I awaken to the sound of scratching. My eyes pry open. I hardly breathe. I listen. It happens again. At the front door I hear the sound of fingernails very slowly clawing their way down the door. It stops and then starts all over again.

            The room begins to shrink. Everything is getting smaller except me. I hear my name drooled on the other side of the door, accompanied by the scratching.

            “Julie. Oh, Julie.”

            “Who is it?” I scream.

            “It’s me,” a familiar voice says, chuckling.

            “Who’s me?”

            “It’s Joel. I’m locked out. I can’t find my key.”

            I propel myself out of bed with thoughts of ripping off his face and drinking his blood.

            “How the fuck could you do that?” I scream, opening the door and punching him.

            “Do what?” he says with his hand flat on my chest, keeping me at bay with his stiffened arm.

            I grab his wrist and bite it. “You bastard,” I sob. “You bastard.”

            “What’s the matter?” he says, blinking stupidly at me. “It was a joke. I thought you’d think it was funny.”

            I sink to my knees, feeling very frightened. I see Joel from the knees down. Knees and feet. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the world at this level. “Give me a ride,” I used to beg my father when I was small, and he’d seat me on his foot. Wrapping my arms and legs around his mighty calf, I’d ride my father’s leg as he walked around the house, calling him my horsey.

            Behind Joel, I see my gentleman caller come through the door. Shshsh, he motions at me, putting his fingers to his lips and grinning. Then he thrusts a knife into Joel’s back through the heart. I see the blood spurt out, then slow to a steady pulse, because the heart is a pump. 

THE END

 

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